When It’s Safer to be Someone Else: BAME characters and “dressing-up”

The “revelations” this past week over Harvey Weinstein’s repeated assaults on women brought up some very troubling conversations about women.  Many of the news reports showed Weinstein with various actresses who have accused him of sexual assault; the actresses were often smiling and near enough to Weinstein for him to have his arm around them.  But as anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted by someone more powerful than them knows, smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy.  It means you are being someone else, trying to survive.  An article in the Independent this week (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/harvey-weinstein-sexual-harassment-mental-health-women-suffering-anxiety-a7996511.html) suggests that most women, once they hit puberty, have to learn psychological coping skills to deal with the gaze of powerful men—and even then may be labelled as anxious or depressed.  The reaction to the hashtag #MeToo (tweeted over half a million times as of Monday, according to CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/15/entertainment/me-too-twitter-alyssa-milano/index.html) shows that sexual assault—for men as well as for women—is all too prevalent in our society, and yet those assaulted feel so alone and so threatened that it is hard to speak up about it.  For many of us (yes, #MeToo), it is safer to smile if we want to survive.  It is safer to be someone else.

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In Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival, Nini gains power through the act of dressing up as an African queen.

This coping mechanism of being someone else has various translations in literature; in children’s books, it is often through the trope of dressing up.  Dressing up can simply allow a character to try out a different persona and see if it fits; but it is interesting to look at how BAME characters in books “dress up,” especially female characters.  Prior to puberty, dressing up is about becoming powerful.  Two very different notions of power can be seen in comparing Errol Lloyd’s Nini at Carnival (Bodley Head, 1978) with Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (Frances Lincoln, 1991).  In Lloyd’s book, the titular character is part of a carnival parade, but she doesn’t have a costume.  Her “fairy godmother” (really her friend dressed up in a fairy costume) comes along and gives her a piece of cloth in a pattern that could be intended as a Kente cloth (the royal cloth of the Akan people in Africa), wrapping it around her like an African ceremonial dress  and saying that Nini is now “pretty enough to be Queen of the Carnival” (n.p.) which Nini, in fact, then becomes.  In Hoffman’s story, on the other hand, Grace likes to dress up as story characters; “she always gave herself the most exciting part” (n.p.) according to Hoffman—which in most cases, happens to be the male part.  Lloyd invests power for his Black female character in the historical traditions of African civilizations; Hoffman invests it in male characters, and often those male characters as written by white male “classic” authors such as Kipling, Longfellow, and of course J. M. Barrie.  Guess which one of these two books has never been out of print since publication?  No wonder World Book Day costumes are fraught for BAME Britons.

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Grace in Mary Hoffman’s book feels powerful when she acts out stories of white and/or male heroes. Illustrations by Caroline Binch.

In YA books, dressing up changes from a focus on power to a focus on survival, particularly for BAME young women.  Two different approaches to dressing up can be seen in Tanya Landman’s Passing for White (Barrington Stoke, 2017) and Catherine Johnson’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo (Corgi, 2015).  In both books, the main female protagonist must escape those who have the power to destroy her happiness and security by becoming someone else.  Rosa, in Landman’s book, is light enough to “pass for white” because she is the daughter of her slave master.  Her master wants to keep Rosa enslaved, and destroy her family life and chances for happiness.  And as Rosa and Benjamin, another slave with whom she falls in love, knows, “White folks can do whatever the hell they pleased . . . And then they’d say it was your own damned fault” (3).  So Rosa dresses up in the most powerful costume she can think of: that of a rich, elderly, white man, with Benjamin as her slave, in order to escape to freedom.  A colleague who teaches slave narratives said that students often argue that passing for white is being a “traitor to your race”—but such attitudes are similar to those who say that women who accept contracts in Hollywood after being assaulted were “trading on sex”.  Survival in the face of overwhelmingly powerful enemies sometimes depends on pretending to be like the powerful.

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For BAME characters in YA novels, “dressing up” was not just fun and games.

Johnson’s book addresses sexual assault head-on, also in a historical novel, by opening her book with the main character’s rape. Mary Wilcox, alone and friendless, is raped by two farm boys even though she is dirty, weak, and “looked like a savage” (2).  Mary knew that rape happened to women “acting the coquette and suffering the consequences” (1) but when she is raped that night, she understands that it is not about women “asking for it” but about men exerting power.  And while she rejects that kind of power, she still knows that to survive, she would have to be somebody else: “an Amazon warrior woman who could turn on her attackers.  Better still, a fighting princess, a beautiful girl with a dagger at her waist and a quiver of magical arrows.  They would not dare touch her then” (4).  Mary does not become a warrior, but she does become a princess from an exotic land, the Lady Caraboo, who speaks no English but reflects back “only what your people wanted me to be” (193)—the beautiful, the strange—to a white family who takes her in.  In becoming someone else, she survives; but her disguise also allows her “to be something other than who I was; something fresh, something good, something capable of love and being loved” (194).  This heartbreaking statement—that Mary thinks she has to be someone else to be loved—rings true for many women who think that their broken self will never be good enough to be worthy of love.

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Becoming “what they want you to be” is another way to survive, as in Catherine Johnson’s novel. Cover photo by Bella Kotak.

Historical fiction is perhaps the easiest genre in which YA literature can represent the concept of becoming someone else for survival, but I want to end with one last example from fantastic fiction.  Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses (Doubleday, 2001) concerns a world where the power positions between Black people and White people are reversed from contemporary society.  But Blackman’s novel is less about race and more about power; both Crosses (Black people who hold most of the society’s power positions) and Noughts (White people who generally have to serve the Crosses) suffer from unequal power relations, but Noughts suffer far more.  Callum, the Nought protagonist, has a sister named Lynette, who was “beaten and left for dead because she was dating a Cross” (124).  Her way of coping with her powerlessness is through disguise: she tries to convince those around her that she is a Cross.  As a blonde, White girl, her disguise is only self-deception.  When forced to confront her despised whiteness, Lynette commits suicide, knowing she will never be able to cope with “a return to reality” (170).

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From Ian Edginton and John Aggs’s graphic novel version of Noughts and Crosses–Lynette’s “madness” is her only chance at survival.

Everyone, at every age, practices “dressing up” to be a little bit different from our ordinary selves sometimes.  But we need to be aware that dressing up can also be a way of hiding—or of surviving.  Literature for children can remind us that sometimes it is safer to be someone else in societies where powerful people get away with crimes against the powerless.

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Back to the Old Country, not Back to the Past: Black Britons Consider the Caribbean

It’s Black History Month in Britain.  While David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan 2016) traces the long and multifaceted history of Black people in Britain, many ordinary Black Britons, born in the country or not, are still faced with the question, “But where are you really from?” quite regularly.

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Hallworth uses childhood rhymes and games, not to look back to the past, but to showcase a modern and multicultural Trinidad.  Illustration by Caroline Binch.

Some Black British authors are from “somewhere else” and celebrate that in their writing, not just as a nostalgic look at their own history, but as a way of providing Black British readers with a sense of community and tradition.  I’m currently working on a piece about Grace Hallworth, who is an excellent example of this kind of “looking back to look forward” in British literature.  Hallworth, born in Trinidad in the turbulent period between the two world wars, was educated in schools that valued the British example (in literature especially) as the pinnacle of culture.  But she also learned the folk stories, songs, and rhymes of the many cultures of Trinidad, European and African and Asian.  She came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation; now in her eighties, Hallworth has been in Britain longer than she lived in Trinidad, but she never forgot her roots.  As a librarian storyteller in Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Hallworth told those stories to children born in Britain (Black and white) and she eventually began to publish them.  Her books’ introductions often stress the value of multicultural communities to the production of folk culture; in Down by the River (Heinemann 1996), she writes, “As children sing and play and then pass on the songs and games of their childhood, we see a living example of the interrelationship of different cultures.  This is something for us all to appreciate and respect” (n.p.).  She is also careful to depict children singing the rhymes as part of a modern-day Caribbean; the rhymes may be old but the children who chant them are not stuck in the past.  Looking back to Trinidad, for Hallworth, is a way of celebrating the ever-changing nature of both the land of her birth and Britain.

Other Black British authors, however, are “really from” Britain.  Indeed, this is more and more the case, especially with authors of Caribbean ancestry; the Empire Windrush, after all, docked nearly 70 years ago now.  But the descendants of the Windrush generation, like many of the children of immigrants, grew up surrounded by their “home” culture of Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana, and the other West Indian islands.  And those who became writers often “look back” to the Caribbean, even when they don’t consider themselves Caribbean.  The gaze of these authors is, however, not directed at the past in the same way as a writer like Hallworth.  Instead, authors such as Patrice Lawrence send characters to relatives who stayed “back home” and explore what the Caribbean is like in the present.

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Lawrence’s Granny Ting Ting celebrates the good things about being British and being from the Caribbean.  Illustration by Adam Larkum.

Lawrence’s Granny Ting-Ting (A&C Black 2009) is an excellent example.  Lawrence, as the book’s “About the Author” section explains, is “Sussex-born, Hackney-living, from a Caribbean and Italian family” (77).  The book was part of A&C Black’s White Wolves reading series, “selected to match developing reading skills” (according to the back cover), and published in consultation with CLPE, the UK’s Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.  Granny Ting-Ting is one of the Year 5 level “Stories from Different Cultures”; but while the other advertised books Pratima Mitchell’s Bamba Beach and Andrew Fusek Peters’s Ever Clever Eva seem to be based around characters entirely from those “different cultures” (and I’ll admit I haven’t read either one, so if anyone has and I am mistaken about this, please do let me know), Lawrence’s book opens with the Trinidadian characters awaiting the arrival of visitors from London.  Michael, the cousin of Trinidadian Shayla, “was born in Trinidad, like Shayla, but moved to London when he was a baby” (8) and is now convinced that everything is better in London.  Lawrence’s narrative does not come to the opposite conclusion—that everything is better in Trinidad—but that each place has its benefits and drawbacks.  The important thing is learning to appreciate difference—and similarity.

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Blackman’s Betsey has much in common with her British counterparts–except for the hurricanes and flying fish. Illustration by Lis Toft.

Malorie Blackman is also British-born, from Clapham, but she has been told to “go back where you came from” (https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/aug/23/malorie-blackman-teen-young-adult-fiction-diversity-amnesty-teen-takeover-2014).  She has also said that she wants to “write books that have black characters in them, but that had nothing to do with race” (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/malorie-blackman-the-childrens-laureate-talks-writers-block-noel-gallagher-and-being-a-warlock-8942592.html).  This does not mean she doesn’t think about being Black, or having family that “came from” somewhere else, and like Lawrence she celebrates both in her books.  The Betsey Biggalow series from Mammoth present an exuberant girl character who gets into trouble and lives life to the full.  Although the illustrations and the books’ promotional material promote Betsey’s Blackness and Caribbean-ness, Blackman herself presents the books without fanfare.  Betsey is a girl who is both similar to and different from British girls.  She fights with her friends and her siblings, and likes milkshakes and trying on her mother’s makeup.  She also likes to eat flying fish, a specialty of the Caribbean, has to deal with hurricanes, and plays often on the beach near her house.  Neither Blackman nor Lawrence are writing about their own Caribbean past—nor indeed, the Caribbean past at all—but their books, as well as Hallworth’s, allow readers to connect to the history of their family without feeling like they are taking a backwards step, or worse—being forced back into the past.

Not Banned, Just Ignored: BAME Lit and Banned Books Week

A news story this week caught my eye—perhaps I should say “news” story, as it was accompanied by the usual screaming headlines of The Sun.  It concerned Roderick Hunt and Alex Brychta’s Biff, Chip and Kipper books, and the adult themes of some of the illustrations (https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4540364/childrens-author-dogging-scenes-biff-chip-kipper-books/).  The comments on the story were a mix of calls for censorship and raised-eyebrow-amusement, but it got me thinking about Banned Books Week, which has been celebrated in the US since 1982, and what censorship means for BAME authors and readers.

Going al fresco? Ed Brody tweeted a photo of the Biff, Chip and Kipper books with something strange going on in the background of one page

What are they doing behind those bushes?  One of the controversial pictures from the Biff, Chip and Kipper series.

On the Banned Books Week coalition website, they list the top ten challenged books of 2016 (http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about).  Most of the books on the list were challenged for sexual content, and most are for young adults (I am Jazz, about a transgender child, is a rare picture book exception).  Most of the books are about white children.  Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s graphic novel, This One Summer, and Bill Cosby’s Little Bill books are the exceptions; and these are both challenged for sexual explicitness (in the case of Bill Cosby, his own rather than the books’).  This is quite a change, historically speaking; books in the US used to regularly be challenged on the basis of their depiction of race, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the “mixed race marriage” depicted in Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding.

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It might not have been the worst day of his life, but Bill Cosby has had his children’s books challenged over the past year because of the charges against him.

The UK has, at least over the last few decades, not had the same kind of censorship culture as the US with regard to children’s books.  The last publication to be banned under the UK’s Obscene Publications act was David Britton’s graphic novel, Lord Horror (published in 1989, banned in 1992), a book definitely not aimed at children.  Indeed, the Obscene Publications act has mostly focused on adult literature, and in recent years hardly used at all.  The 1955 Children and Young Persons Harmful Publications Act, which was introduced in response to a National Union of Teachers exhibition of horror comics they deemed harmful to children, ultimately resulted in only two prosecutions (both in 1970) according to the parliamentary record (http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/written_answers/1974/dec/05/childrens-publications-prosecutions#S5CV0882P0_19741205_CWA_237).  In 2010, the BBC noted that US-style banning of books was rare: “Part of the difference is in the level of local control over schools. Typically in the US, locally-elected school boards can have books withdrawn when parents petition them. In the UK, control lies almost exclusively in the hands of headteachers, says Sally Duncan, of the School Library Association” (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-11417672). This attitude of UK rationality regarding the US with benign bemusement is fairly standard across articles from the UK about censorship.

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I wonder if Mary Hoffman’s Grace ever dreamed of being Wishee-Washee in the Aladdin pantomime? Dean Kilford plays him here in this photo by James Spicer.

But the suggestion of British superiority belies the ways in which the institutions and industries (particularly education and publishing) in the UK effect the same result: producing literature which reinforces a white, patriarchal, Christian, heterosexual status quo.  This is true in terms of the books and authors who do get published: the most lauded picture book about a Black British child was written by a white author, and rewards the Black British character for wanting to participate in British (and more particularly English) literary and dramatic tradition (including Kipling, Shakespeare, J. M. Barrie, and British pantomime); most of the books written by BAME authors or about BAME characters that have won awards in the last fifty years have gone out of print in a relatively short amount of time.

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Books like Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet may not have been banned, but they aren’t in print in the UK anymore–and were never in print in the US.

BAME British books and authors that depict alternatives or challenges to white dominant society are often ignored or criticized.  Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, an alternative-reality story where Black people hold the majority of power positions and white people form militant groups, garnered considerable attention, including from racist trolls.  Except for Noughts and Crosses, Blackman’s books were not published in the US.  Neither are the books of most other BAME authors, including award-winners such as Alex Wheatle and Patrice Lawrence (although the picture book I mentioned above by the white author was not only published in the US but has remained in print), suggesting that UK publishers do not value the literature enough to promote it, or US publishers do not see the works as “translating” to the US, a dubious idea. Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights may have won the Guardian Prize for fiction, but neither he nor Blackman has ever won the most prestigious children’s book prize in the UK, the Carnegie Medal (and Wheatle, along with several other celebrated BAME authors, was not even shortlisted).  The Carnegie, unlike many of the other children’s book prizes in the UK, is awarded by children’s librarians.

I am certain that individual publishers, authors, and librarians could protest the suggestion of racism in children’s book publishing—but the individual example is an easy way to diffuse a larger argument (no matter what the topic).  I’d like to quote some statistics to prove my points, but the UK, unlike the US, does not publish statistics relating to diversity in children’s books.  So while the UK can be smug about its lack of direct censorship compared to the US, it can also mask its poor efforts in publishing and awarding BAME children’s literature.  The UK needs an organization like the US-based Cooperative Children’s Book Center (https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/default.asp), which publishes yearly statistics on the numbers and types of diverse children’s books published in any given year.

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Publications such as Children’s Book Bulletin and Dragon’s Teeth commented on the good and bad in children’s publishing about BAME people.

Academics, whether focused on education, librarianship, or children’s literature can also play their part in raising the profile of BAME children’s books.  In the 1970s, when literature with Black British characters had a brief moment in the sun (one even won the Kate Greenaway medal, as I’ve discussed on this blog before), it was partly because children’s librarians such as Dorothy Kuya (in her publication Dragon’s Teeth) and Janet Hill (in books like Children are People) actively promoted and discussed BAME children’s literature.  Andrew Mann and Rosemary Stones did the same through the anti-racist anti-sexist Children’s Rights Workshop and its publication Children’s Book Bulletin.  These publications were aimed at an audience of teachers, librarians and parents, in an attempt to educate them about available literature.  Letterbox Library is one of the organizations that works toward these goals now, but there is no journal in the UK devoted to BAME children’s literature that I know of—whether aimed at an academic or non-academic audience.  Perhaps it is time to start one—but in the meantime, may I suggest that we all could participate in anti-censorship activities this week by picking up a book that has been banned in the US—or one that has just been ignored in the UK.

I’ll end with one of Letterbox Library’s tweets from this morning which sums all this up nicely:

Letterbox Library @LetterboxLib 4h4 hours ago

Spot the difference- we requested the book shown in this trade catalogue; this is what we received (we were sent the “UK edition”…):

Golden Tickets or Good Intentions? Roald Dahl and Race

Yesterday was Roald Dahl Day—really just his birthday, but a day that is celebrated in the UK with, well, a lot of Dahliana (yes, I did just make that word up).  Dahl is one of those writers whose books incite both passion and disgust (the latter mostly from adults, who are frequently targets of criticism in Dahl’s writing).  As Peter Hunt put it in The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Literature, “Although he claimed to be on the child’s side he has been widely seen as manipulative, and has been accused variously of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and cruelty. On the other hand, his supporters (who far outnumber his detractors) argue that he speaks to childhood values (such as love of simple justice), and to children’s delight in excess, cartoon-like extravagance, and verbal ingenuity.”  You can guess from this quotation where Peter falls on the scale of Dahl appreciation (his use of the word “claimed” is almost New Testament in nature).  I, on the other hand, grew up with Dahl and he was even a part of our family jokes; my dad used to say, “Hush, Veruca,” to me when I was acting spoiled.  And even now, there are a few people I wouldn’t mind seeing squashed by a giant peach.

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I’m sure I never acted like this, dad! Julie Dawn Cole plays Veruca Salt in the 1971 film version of Dahl’s book.

But even as a kid, there were things that bothered me about Dahl’s books, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) in particular.  For example, was chewing gum really equivalent to gluttony, greed, or even watching too much television?  And the Oompa-Loompas made me uncomfortable (although I did like some of their Greek-chorus-like pronouncements): why were they all men? Why were they all tiny? Why did everyone, the Oompa-Loompas included, think that it was okay for them to be held captive in Wonka’s factory?

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Troublesome issues, even for a child: Joseph Schindelman’s drawing of gum-chewing Violet being rolled away by the Oompa-Loompa “pygmies”.

One thing I never questioned as a child was Charlie’s ethnicity.  Partly this was because he was British; as far as I knew growing up in America, British people were white.  But more to the point, book characters were white, especially book heroes.  There was an occasional exception to this rule—Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry (1976) springs to mind—but these were usually books that were ABOUT being a Black person and/or encounters with racism.  Books about “ordinary” things like magical people only ever included white people.

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A case of “reading while white”? Although Ursula LeGuin’s 1968 novel features a hero with red-brown skin, many readers, used to white heroes, didn’t notice.

Yesterday, however, that notion was challenged by Roald Dahl’s widow, who commented on Radio 4 that Dahl originally intended Charlie to be Black British but he changed his character (according to Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock) because his agent said people would question the decision (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-41257684).  It certainly would have raised eyebrows in 1964, when characters in British children’s books were not quite all as white as American readers might have thought, but when most Black British characters were still contained in “issues” books.  This point is underscored by Liccy Dahl’s follow-up comment that she was sure Dahl’s desire to make Charlie Black British “was influenced by America”; despite Britain’s changing population in the 1960s, many white people still connected Black people with America and not their own country.

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Charles Keeping did not hesitate to make one of his characters Black British.

But even if Dahl did want to make Charlie Black British, questions remain.  Why did he give up so easily?  Other writers didn’t.  Writers like Josephine Kamm, Eric Allen, and Christine Pullein-Thompson all had children’s or YA books published within a few years of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Kamm’s and Allen’s books were earlier) that featured Black British characters prominently (if not always unstereotypically).  And in 1967, the great illustrator Charles Keeping wrote a book about his own Black British Charley—Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary—that won the Kate Greenaway medal.  And if the hesitation (with Dahl or his agents/publishers) was about fantasy, Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series contained one Black character (in The Chimneys of Green Knowe) and one Chinese character (in A Stranger at Green Knowe), both published years before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I’m not arguing that all of these portrayals of Black British characters by white authors are perfect, but they exist, and at least some of them were published early enough that they could have (but ultimately didn’t, for whatever reason) provided evidence for Dahl to contrast his agent’s argument that people would question a Black British lead character.

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Faith Jaques’ revised (1973) illustrations of the Oompa Loompas do not erase all of the problems of representation.

Additionally, the suggestion that Dahl wanted to include a Black British Charlie has to be balanced with his troubling portrait of the Oompa-Loompas, something with which his agent was apparently entirely comfortable.  The original Oompa-Loompas were Black; Wonka tells his guests, “Pygmies they are!  Imported direct from Africa!” (65).  Later editions (including the one I read as a child) changed their origin to the vaguely less problematic “Loompaland” but didn’t change the circumstances in which an entire people were removed from their homeland to live entirely in captivity.  As Clare Bradford has pointed out, “Dahl’s portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas is oblivious to the wider implications of a group of immigrant workers exploited by a factory owner” (The Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature 39).

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A “tame” version of the Smethwick campaign slogan widely reported on in 1964, the same year as Dahl’s book.

Given that the book was published in the same year as the infamous Smethwick election wherein one candidate used the slogan, “If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/15/britains-most-racist-election-smethwick-50-years-on) and two years after the first Commonwealth Immigration Act restricting “coloured” immigration, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is oblivious about more than just immigrant exploitation.  Dahl may have had good intentions about including the wider world in one of his most famous books, but the result is as disappointing as opening a Wonkabar and realizing you haven’t found a golden ticket.

 

Mixed, Not Mixed Up: Mixed Race Families in British children’s and YA lit

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I did what a lot of pregnant literature professors do—look for enough books to fill a library for their future genius.  In my case, along with my own childhood favorites (Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances books, Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Dr. Seuss, my favorite fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), I wanted to get books where the characters would look like my child.  But this was not so simple.  In addition to the fact that many picture books have animals rather than people as characters, most of the people characters are white. Those that aren’t are from a single, identifiable racial group.  My child would be mixed race.

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Tony Bradman and Eileen Browne’s books about Jo show a confident, happy, mixed race child–but on book covers, she is all alone.

I went searching anyway, and found a few—not many.  I commented on these in an article I wrote, “Why are People Different? Multiracial Families in Picture Books and the Dialogue of Difference” (Lion and the Unicorn 25.3, September 2001: 412-426), You can read the article yourself (it isn’t too tedious) but the Ladybird version of the article is that I was disappointed in most of the books I did find.  The picture books I looked at then emphasized “difference and a physical space between the racially different parents” (423).  During that same year, Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe wrote, in her essay “Re-Membering ‘Race’: On Gender, ‘Mixed Race’ and Family in the English-African Diaspora,” that it was important that young people had representations they could look to because “neither the exclusionary discourse of White Englishness nor the inclusive discourse of the Black English-African diaspora completely represents their everyday lived realities” (50).  Of course, no one book can carry the burden of completely accurately representing the lived realities of any actual human, and not all the books were all bad.  I was especially fond of Tony Bradman’s and Eileen Browne’s picture books about a little girl named Jo (Through My Window, In a Minute, Wait and See).  And none of us in my family are badgers, but we still enjoyed singing the little songs Russell Hoban’s Frances made up—so books that are not about “race” can still raise a sense of recognition in a reader.

But I did wonder (and worry) what my daughter would have to read as she got older, and books stopped having visual representation of mixed race families—especially as in many of the picture books, the visual representation is all the representation that existed, the text itself could have been about—well, about badgers.  Would my daughter see people who looked like her when books left the character’s description to the imagination?  Or would she see the “normal” (that is, white) hero or heroine as most readers, no matter what their racial background, do?  And would there be any mixed race families for her to read about?

It turns out that the generation who grew up at the same time as my daughter expected to find multiracial families in books, and to some extent have got them.  I think that a recent rise in the number of YA and tween books with multiracial families/biracial characters has been advanced by the brilliant crop of BAME British writers who have begun scooping up prizes right and left.  While white Britons (and Americans) may or may not know someone who is of mixed racial heritage, most BAME people know at least someone—if they aren’t part of a multiracial family themselves.  Things have changed in the decade and a half since I wrote my article.

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Both Brahmachari’s Artichoke Hearts and Lawrence’s Indigo Donut show the multiracial couples physically linked.

First, one of the things I discussed in my article was the fact that racially different people were often physically separated in illustrations, even when they had a textually-stated reason to be close (such as being married!).  Book covers are different from picture books, of course—YA authors do not (usually) have any say at all about who does their covers.  Nonetheless, I see the covers of books like Sita Brahmachari’s Artichoke Hearts (Macmillan 2011) and Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017) to be quite positive advances over the books available to my daughter as a child.  Mira, the Indian- and English-heritage protagonist of Artichoke Hearts, and Bailey, the Afro-Caribbean- and English-heritage main character of Indigo Donut, are not alone on their respective covers—as, for example, Jo is on the cover of all the Bradman and Browne books.  As befits books for the 11+ age group, both Mira and Bailey are depicted with their romantic interests.  But unlike the pictures of married couples in the picture books I reviewed in 2001, the young lovers on these covers are linked physically (as they are in the books).  If you think that this is unremarkable, consider that Sarah Garland’s lovely Billy and Belle (Reinhardt 1992) faced difficulties getting published because the parents, one Black and one white, were shown in bed together.  Garland was told that many countries would censor the book unless she removed the scene. (She didn’t, and it wasn’t published at the time in South Africa, among other places.)

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Garland’s Billy and Belle was controversial because the parents actually slept in the same bed–shock horror!

Second, and perhaps more important, the books being published now no longer emphasize the idea of difference in a negative way.  As with any real child of a biracial marriage, the fact of being “mixed” only comes up occasionally.  Mira’s brother has different colored eyes than her, and her writing teacher describes her as having a “dual history name” (7), but it isn’t something that comes up every day.  Even when Mira goes to India in the sequel, Jasmine Skies, the emphasis is on her learning about her Indian heritage, not about her being “mixed”.  Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights (Atom 2016) announces part of the main character’s mixed heritage in the opening sentence: “My mum told me I was named after her Scottish granddad, Danny McKay” (1); McKay and his brother are also named after famous people of African heritage, Medgar Evers and Robert Nesta Marley.  But both McKay and Mira are part of their neighborhoods and families, not individuals set apart and “different”.  It is true that Lawrence’s Bailey faces teasing over his ginger afro, but he has learned to deal with it.  Rather than keep it short, he grows his hair as big as it will grow, telling Indigo that to cut it would be “telling people like Saskia they’re right” (78) to tease him.  Difference is not a problem to be solved, but one of many aspects to be celebrated.  The young characters in recent books for children may be mixed—but they are far from being mixed up.

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Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights announces the multiracial heritage of McKay from the opening sentence.

Start with What You Know and Take it From There: The role of the archive

I recently ate up Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut (Hodder 2017).  I loved it; it was hard to put down, and I could easily write a blog about the novel by itself (maybe I will sometime!).  But I want to highlight just one piece of the novel (or donut?) for now, and it isn’t probably the section that avid readers of this blog might expect.  It’s the section where Bailey, the main boy character, goes to the archives at his local library.

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Lawrence’s second book, a tale of finding out about yourself and those you love . . . partly by visiting the archive.

This section (pages 271-274) interests me for a couple of reasons.  First, because Bailey knows that you can get information from an archive, which makes him an unusual 16-year-old (I wish I had more college students who knew what an archive was, let alone how to use it).  But second, and more importantly, because Lawrence’s depiction of a first archive experience is a very accurate one.  Bailey comes in knowing what he’s looking for, but not how to find it.  The “information lady” tells him “to start with what you know, and take it from there” (272); but although he follows her advice, it takes him down rabbit holes and he must bring himself constantly back into focus.  When he finally runs out of time—without finding the information he needs—the librarian/archivist offers him a clue for a next step, pointing out that “It’s surprising what you find in the small print” (274).

A still from the video that has stirred the controversy.

The BBC cartoon that included a Black Roman caused controversy–but visit Hadrian’s Wall, and many other sites in Britain, and you’ll learn about several Black Romans in Britain.

 

On the surface, the description of this scene does not have anything to do with race and diversity in British children’s/YA literature.  And while I am sure that Patrice Lawrence had Bailey go to the archive deliberately, I’m not sure whether she thought about it as a political statement within her novel.  However, having spent a lot of time in archives over the past few years, I’m going to take this scene that way: as a political statement about race and diversity.  Archives in Britain, as well as major research libraries such as the British Library, have traditionally been places where white Britons felt welcome, but BAME people less so.  This (perceived?) lack of welcome may come from the archive’s connection with the idea of Heritage Britain; recent controversies such as the trolling of Mary Beard over her defense of a BBC cartoon depicting Black Romans in early Britain (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/roman-britain-black-white/) suggest that many people still see British history as an all-white subject. Museums, libraries and archives all play a role in defining what (and who) counts as British, and their definitions have consequences for their patrons.  If people don’t see history as belonging to them, they often will not be interested in learning about it. However, research (Hirschi and Screven 1989; Lynch and Alberti 2010; Golding 2016) has indicated that involving traditionally marginalized communities in history-related projects can help open up heritage to new users and change the dialogue around national identity. By having Bailey, a mixed-race British teenager, go to the archive expecting answers about the past, Patrice Lawrence indicates something important: that Bailey has a right to be there, belongs there, and that he can and should access historical information when he needs it.

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Archives should be a place where everyone feels welcome to learn about history, as they are at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book in Newcastle.

The other “political” message I found in Lawrence’s depiction is the librarian’s final comment to Bailey, that what you find in the small print can surprise you.  I can relate this directly to my own efforts to find Black British people in various archives while writing my book on British children’s publishing.  Archives that seemed at first glance to be entirely about white Britons often revealed a more diverse picture with a closer look or more research.  Take the case of Leila Berg, a white British author and publisher from the 1950s-1990s whose archive can be found at Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book.  I had never heard of her before I went to Seven Stories, and even when the archivists and librarians at Seven Stories pointed me in her direction, I wasn’t sure if she would be all that relevant to my research on Black British authors and publishers.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that Berg, who experienced the anti-Semitism of her “friends” during World War II, committed herself to standing against both class and racial prejudice in all of her work.  But her archive tells more than just her own history, and it is this that takes me back to Lawrence’s librarian’s comment.  Berg kept records of various meetings, conferences, and events that she attended throughout her life, and looking through these with careful eyes can reveal otherwise-untold histories of Black Britain.

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Gilroy’s Nippers, like her work with teachers, suggest that white Britons need to learn to see Black people as British.

The first time I examined her archive, I didn’t really know what I was looking at, but going back this summer, I found something I hadn’t noticed before.  One document, handwritten by Berg, talks of visiting “Beryl’s classroom” (the document is dated Nov 3 73; Seven Stories archives LB/05/03/20).  This didn’t signify anything particular to me at the time, but when I saw it this past summer, I cursed myself for missing it before.  Given the date, and the fact that Berg was talking about a headteacher, “Beryl” could only have been Beryl Gilroy, the first Black headteacher in Britain (and Black Atlantic author Paul Gilroy’s mother as well, though he was still at school when his mother met Berg).  Berg records what Gilroy told her about a “failure conference” she held at her school for the mostly white teachers she worked with: that it is the (white) teachers who must change their attitudes about their (BAME) students, not the other way around.  Gilroy, who would write several titles for Berg’s reading series, Nippers, made the case that BAME students are British, and their cultures, traditions, languages and families were part of Britain too.  More than 40 years after Berg recorded this, the case is still being argued by some.  Maybe people who don’t see BAME people as a part of British history could use a trip to their local archives.  Or they might just want to curl up with Indigo Donut.

Playing Statues: Monuments, Racism, and Children’s Geography Texts

Do you remember playing a game, maybe at a birthday party, called Statues?  You took a statue pose and had to be the last one remaining still.  You often got a prize for not moving.  I had this image in mind over the last few days, as the events in Charlottesville had people all over the world focused on the way that statues can take us back in history and hold us in a place of racism, division, and oppression.

I’m not the only one who has been thinking about this.  London’s Black History Walks group (http://www.blackhistorywalks.co.uk/) has a list of eight statues and buildings with racist histories in the UK (you can sign up for their email newsletter even if you are outside the UK to get this and other stories, but if you can get to one of their history walks, I can personally recommend that you do so).  And of course there is the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which began in South Africa in 2015 and expanded to Oxford in 2016; this week the global editor of the Huffington Post, Lydia Polgreen, commented on Rhodes Must Fall as a model for Americans who want to remove confederate statues, although she added, “changes to monuments will only be enough once economic justice is included in the redress of South Africa’s socio-economic crisis” (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2017/08/14/rhodes-must-fall-campaign-could-help-charlottesville_a_23076674/). There have been many critics of the idea of statue removal as well. I doubt I need to tell you who was “sad” this week “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” but he is not alone in this sentiment.  Many have suggested that statues of racist and imperialist figures in statues and monuments remind us of humanity’s troubled past, and help keep us from repeating mistakes (although the logic of this when examined in light of this week’s events is somewhat questionable).

But surely, even if you believe that statues can tell a sobering history of human inhumanity, that story must be put into context; otherwise, viewers draw their own conclusions.  Many towns, for example, have statues of generals in full battle gear in triumphant poses, but only simple pillars or crosses to the many ordinary soldiers that died in the battle or war.  To me as a child, that always suggested that generals were heroic and important, but you should definitely try not to be an ordinary soldier, since their lives clearly did not matter as much.  There was no context to tell me anything different, especially before I could read.  Image was everything.

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CW Airne’s Our Empire’s Story shows a triumphant statue of Rhodes. Note that even in the depiction of the Last Stand of [white British] Captain Wilson, it appears the Matabili are losing.

Because of my own childhood experience of statues, I wanted to examine how children’s literature, particularly geography texts, considered statues.  The books I discuss here are from my own collection, which largely contains British empire and post-empire examples (it would be very interesting to look at similar geography books about the US).  Early examples often mentioned statues and memorials.  George Dickson’s A Nursery Geography (Thomas Nelson, ca. 1920) has two children traveling the world on a magic carpet; coming into London, “The first thing we saw was a tall column, the Nelson Monument.  We had heard of Nelson, the greatest admiral that ever lived, who was killed at the Battle of Trafalgar” (131).  There is nothing here (or on the statue itself) to suggest that less than six months before his death, Nelson was vowing to fight “that damnable and cursed doctrine” of abolitionist William Wilberforce (http://blog.soton.ac.uk/slaveryandrevolution/tag/horatio-nelson/); in fact, most adults today are not even aware of Nelson’s pro-slavery stance.  C. W. Airne’s Our Empire’s Story told in pictures (Thomas Hope, ca. 1944) has drawings of several statues around the British empire; perhaps the most pertinent page to current events is the page on Rhodesia, which begins with a statue of Cecil Rhodes—contrasted with an “Ancient conical Tower in the mysterious ruins of Zimbabwe” (41)—and several pictures that show Rhodes’s influence (positive, of course).

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Taking a stand against imperialism and slavery; Morrison’s Guyana celebrates Cuffy rather than Victoria.

I was therefore quite surprised to examine more modern examples of geography texts and see how other histories often take pride of place.  My collection only includes a small sampling of geography texts about the West Indies (my particular area of interest) but the books I do have either ignore statues and monuments altogether, or highlight anti-colonial histories through their statues.  Marion Morrison’s Guyana (Children’s Press, 2003), part of the Enchantment of the World series, does not mention the famous statue of Queen Victoria, erected in 1887, dynamited in anti-colonial protests in 1954, and finally permanently removed in 1970 upon declaration of the Guyanese republic (http://interactive.britishart.yale.edu/victoria-monuments/210/statue-of-queen-victoria-), but has a photograph of a statue of the Berbice Rebellion leader, Cuffy (48).

Martin Hintz’s Haiti (Children’s Press, 1998) in the same series, not only has a picture of the statue of King Henri Christophe (22), but also includes an undated historical drawing of “A temple honoring the end of slavery at Le Cap” (85).

Sarah De Capua’s Dominican Republic (Marshall Cavendish, 2004) is perhaps the most disappointing of the books I found with statues.  Part of the “Discovering Cultures” series, the book not only elides Columbus’s connection with the slave trade on the page that shows his statue (11), it fails to discuss the front cover statue, the Monument of the Heroes.  Originally a statue to the dictator Trujillo, the statue was repurposed to depict heroes of the war of independence from Spain in 1961.  But nothing about the statue is mentioned in the text, while Columbus is depicted as the founder of the first permanent colony in the island.

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Malcolm Frederick’s Kamal Goes to Trinidad (Frances Lincoln, 2008), with its pictures by Prodeepta Das, could also have included a photo of the statue of Columbus that stands in Port of Spain, but instead, he chose a statue that acts as a reminder of both the British Empire and a time more than a thousand years’ previous (when Britain itself was a tiny outpost of the Roman Empire).  The inclusion of the statue of Hanuman, the Hindu deity, points out Trinidad’s multiculturalism that resulted from British imperialism—but the religion itself came before and outlasted that empire.

Statues depict a moment in time to remind people of historical events.  They can act as a way to glorify a less-than-glorious history, especially when viewed without a context (or with a one-sided context).  But as some of these examples from children’s geography show, statues can, paradoxically, show us a way to move away from histories of racism and imperialism, and toward one of ordinary people’s struggle against that oppression.